Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Quality Context.

I was reading the qaisdoes twitter feed and the following post from @ASQ came across:
            Quality Quote: "Quality is everyone's expectation!" - Jeffrey S. Schiopota, vice  president of operations, Aspire Brands

And my automatic response was to argue (to be fair i'm reasonably certain that 80% of my friends, acquaintances and family would not be surprised at my willingness to argue) the point.  After all, if you buy something from the dollar store, quality is not necessarily what you expect.  But after further reflection i think that you do expect quality from items that you buy at the dollar store but the quality has a context.  

For example, if i go to McDonald's I don't expect the food to taste like what i'd get at a sit down restaurant.  Mcdonald's has built a worldwide brand based upon the fact that they can build a consistent brand that looks, feels and tastes the same no matter where you go.  So if you consider their quality of process and product, it's pretty high within the context of your expectation.  I don't expect my Big Mac to taste like the burger that my grandpa used to BBQ on those warm summer evenings of my childhood, i expect it to taste like every other Big Mac i've ever had.  If it doesn't then they aren't adhering to their quality standard. 

Part of the problem is the word quality and how it's used.  Quality didn't always mean good, quality started out its life requiring a qualifier so that you would know what usage it was entailing.  This product is of high quality, this is a low quality widget, etc.  But these days if someone just says, 'quality is everyone's expectation' there's an allowed context within of 'high quality is everyone's expectation.'  It's not a very exact statement but it's the intent behind it. 

Of course coming back around to not arguing with the statement due to context i had another thought - I'm not sure it is what the pessimists amongst us do expect.  I don't think that i really expect quality in general anymore.  The bigbox discount stores of the world have started to train us that you get what you pay for.  When i look at the dollar store example in my second paragraph you really do get the quality that you expect, as long as you're looking at things reasonably and rationally.  Every product you buy at that dollar store is built with a particular probable failure rate due to material and manufacturing process.  You've paid a buck, it'll last longer than a use or two but after a dozen uses, count your blessing for having a usable product every use thereafter.  In general, if you know what you're looking for, then the dollar store is a great place to go.  I really don't need gift bags that are higher quality than a dollar store provides.  They will have the quality i expect, for the most part.

For the pessimist however, i think that there is also a belief that the pervasiveness of the bigbox prices that has brought quality overall down in an attempt to compete.  "things don't last like they used to."  Everyone's heard this from a person of an older generation.  If you grew up in the 60's you had a different concept of the quality to expect from things.  Your phone isn't going to last 15 years, you know that, you buy it and expect a quality product that will last until a year or two after your contract runs.  At that point you're probably going to buy a new phone anyway.  This is how products are being designed, because manufacturers want you to pay the bill for new product again and again.  If i buy a big ticket electronics product like a TV or receiver and i pay for the higher quality product, i do have an expectation of quality.  You'd think that for an $800 phone we could expect the same thing but i believe we are being conditioned to really put the quality context into play.  You expect it to work well for the length of the contract and then you start counting your blessings for every year you get past that. 

But even in this example we are trained for quality context.  You expect the quality you receive from such a product.  It's a shame that we're giving up quality for price and are becoming doomed to live in a throw-a-way society and often i try to convince myself that spending the quality dollar to buy a higher lifespan product is the way to go.  Most of the time i even succeed.  But it's not always easy either.  It's hard for a person of my generation who looks at TV's or phones or things in that price point and automatically has an expectation of higher quality.  People older than me, they rail against the machine, people my age grumble and complain, millenials...they just live easily with the concept that two years from now they'll need to replace their everything.

Quality Context is becoming everything.  To rephrase the quote a little, "Contextual quality is everyone's expectation."

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Distractable Me...

This post stems from thoughts i had reading an article on linked in by Ilya Pozin called Why Distractions are Actually Good.  The article discusses why distractions within your work-life can actually lead to increased problem solving and creativity.  

It really drove home the lesson that i learned these tricks (as he discusses) back in University but had maybe dropped them from my conscious mind since then.  Mostly i'm referring to the concept that if you let yourself be distracted from an important problem then your subconscious will continue to work on it in the background coming up with a solution when you least expect it.  

I think that in our workplace world that we've been conditioned to work on an important problem in a dedicated fashion until you've reached a solution.  I've watched far more than enough developers embroiled in thought, indicating any distraction would be disastrous to the process, to know that this is really a prevalent thought pattern. i'm not really saying that it's the wrong way to go, for some, but it doesn't really reflect the way things work for myself. 

Back in university after Metallurgical Engineering and myself were done with each other i shifted into Philosophy.  This move caused a monumentally different shift in the way i was going to have to approach my work and studies.  In engineering every problem would take a certain amount of time to solve and you just had to work through it to get to the solution.  Even extended problems that would include lab work were a series of interconnected steps or tests that would be plodded through methodically (by definition they have to be stepped through methodically) to achieve your end goals.  

It's like night and day from what philosophy meant for me to do.  In philosophy i was expected to read things and think about them.  I was to grow my own concepts and investigate within themselves what they might mean.  Assigned readings didn't just make the thoughts that you wanted to have happen happen, you might need thought percolation or even group discussion to bring them about. 

I was relatively successful in Philosophy, like i never had been in Metallurgy and part of the reason was that i left my work alone.  I achieved a methodology for dealing with papers.  As you might imagine Philosophy was all about the papers.  In general the way a paper would go is about a month or so before the assignment was due you'd be given a topic and some idea of the readings that would help you achieve direction for your topic.  The further you advanced, the less direct the direction on what to read but the concept remained the same.  

I started being a last minute guy, do the readings, write the paper, hand it in.  I noticed that often this resulted in papers that weren't all that well conceptualized or thought-out, a definite success killer in Philosophy.   As with most people, trying to trouble shoot the problem i decided that i needed to get on the work earlier so that i wasn't last-minute guy.  Obviously i needed more prep time.  And again, as with most people this worked the first time but follow through on such decisions is really difficult.  I was lucky though as i failed in succeeding on this track i discovered something about myself, or i should say re-discovered. 

If i really read the assignment right around when it was due and then within the next few days of that i did some of the readings (let's be reasonable, no one does all the readings do they?).  As i did those readings i would think about the problem.  When i got to the point where i wasn't going to read about it anymore, i just let it go.  From that point something every week or so would remind me about the assignment.  Most of the time a professor reminding us about the assignment or a classmate asking a question.   other than pondering a little bit as these reminders occurred no active work would be done.  As i tweaked my process i found that interim work was mostly wasted effort and time.  Then, a day or two before the due date i'd be reminded again and suddenly i'd be driven by terror to commence working on the paper.  

in the early days before i figured out the system i would pick up the assignment, be reminded of the readings and tackle them again.  But eventually i learned that really all i had to do was read the assignment again and sit down to start my paper.  And voila, suddenly i would have one, or two ideas that were mostly baked, in my brain just waiting to be written about.  My work habits may have been poor but my brain was sitting there waiting to rescue me.  

Throughout school i tweaked this system.  I was willing and able to make the effort to do the readings early as long as i didn't have to tackle the daunting paper itself.  As a reward, my brain would do the work while i wasn't thinking about it and feed the ideas back to myself when i was finally spurred by terror to get it done.  it's a system that worked very well for myself and i honed it to a powerful machine. 

Do i use this system today?  Not really.  I rarely get assignments that are more than a few days out that really need percolation of concepts in the same way that my papers did.  I like to let things like test plans gestate in my brain for a while before i start them but i've found that so much that i do is so similar that if i don't write the ideas down as i get them that they will get overwritten by other ideas before i get a chance to get them down.  I guess i'm slowly honing a system here were i do allow percolation of these ideas and have the rigor to take notes when the ideas that will work pop into my head but this system is by no means yet mature and i lose a lot of ideas still. 

I guess that's the point of this paper that i'm writing, why the original article i read meant so much.  I need to remember that this is a successful way for me to work and i have to give my subconscious the power to do it's work and my conscious mind the time to utilize the tool. 

I mentioned above that even in university that this was a re-discovery of the phenomena.  Years before, in middle and high school i had learned that i was a very creative person but that i didn't always have the 'great' ideas at my finger tips.  I developed a minor system of saying to myself, 'i need a name for this project/paper etc,'  or 'i need an idea for this project' and then letting it go for a period of time.  Almost without fail within a few days, out of the blue the idea would come to me.  With the system in university, i added timelines and pressure to the system and it still worked.  And today in my personal life, i've taught my spouse and myself that when we put hard ideas that indicate a need for big change that i instantly resist, giving it a few days for my brain, without my conscious involvement, to chew on the idea will generally provide a much more reasonable response rather than the auto-defense mechanism of no. 

one last note, I think in some ways, these days, my work itself creates this distraction path that allows me to be more creative.  As a manager, most of my career has been filled with distractions, whether they be true emergencies (which my last job was filled with) or just intense context shifting all of the time.  That's part of my job, and in general, part of my job that i like.  But i think that one of the things that it does for me, is takes the problem i'm working on right now and gives myself the time for my subconscious to do it's work while i'm the the 3 hours of meetings that distracted me.  The only challenge with this system is remembering to get back to the original problem when i come out of the meetings. 

do you have any tips or tricks to use the subconscious to solve problems in the current business world?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Are random webinars worth it?

What's a random webinar you might ask?  As you progress through your career different organizations that offer training are going to add you politely to their mailing lists.  (and politely i mean whether you want them to or not).  

A common practice amongst these organizations is to have lost leader training webinars.  They generally fall into one of two categories;  The first is from an organization shilling a product that relates to the subject that they are teaching about.  The model is generally to have an 'independent' expert talk about the product for approximately half of the time, how to approach it, recognize it, deal with it, etc and then the second half is reserved for a discussion of how their product could help you with the topic at hand.  Understanding the adage that you don't get anything for free, myself and my team have sat through a fair number of these webinars trying to learn something new and different about topics that we encounter on a regular basis. 

Generally we get a firmer understanding of the topic that we're looking into; system monitoring, performance testing, mobile testing, etc but rarely do we truly learn something new and interesting.  It's good, perhaps that we learn what kind of tools are out there and can help us with our tasks.  Generally the tools offered by the vendors hosting these talks are pretty expensive and won't be something that make the business case for us but not always and we have at least been lured into a free trial or two to experiment with the tools.  It's also good to round out your knowledge in a specific area to give you a better understanding of standards on a more industry-wide basis. 

The second type is an organization that specializes in training.  Their goal is generally to find a topic that is interesting and most importantly topical (or filled with buzzwords) such that you're going to be interested in logging in to listen.  They will generally have a 'guest' expert that will walk you through the topic.  for the most part the webinars that i've attended have been interesting but too general and cerebral to be of real practical use.  And there's a reason for this as well, they're running a business and want you to come to them to take a day's training on the subject to really understand.  They might show you the tip of the iceberg of a tool that can help you to cope with the issue at hand but there isn't really time to understand the tool or have practical implementation steps for it. 

In effect they are using the lure of education to put your butt in a seat to get you to absorb the marketing that is throughout these presentations.  To be fair, it's pretty subtle marketing.  They get to plaster their company name and logo all over the place and mention themselves a few times throughout as well as talk about the possible avenues for further training in the subject that can be taken.   The problem is they can't load very much content into an hour while showing you all that you could possible learn in a day's session (or longer) of training and without giving away the core lessons that you would be gaining in a paid session.  So while it isn't exactly practical and useful training it generally brings you a good solid grounding in the subject and if you've had some thoughts and were doubting them it can bring them into focus.  

On the other hand, if you want to learn things you can use...put into action as soon as the webinar is finished, they're pretty much not the place to be.  I've seen the faces of many a participant glaze over and they start reading their email on their phone, hoping not to miss it if the presentation turns 'good.'  they rarely do that, they rarely start super slow and suddenly become filled with practically useful knowledge. 

So why do i keep sitting through them?  Am i just a glutton for fluff?  I maybe see one a month.  I get the advisory, put it in my calendar, invite other potentially interested parties to join me  and then wander off to watch it when it happens.  I generally learn something.  But it's not like it changes my world, rather it just adds to the knowledge base that i work with. 

And sometimes i'll watch something that isn't really in my bailey wick and have more to learn.  For instance this week i sat through, 'Assertiveness for Women - Finding the Right Balance' not so much because i want to be an assertive woman (ie, i'm a guy) but because i have female reports and i work with other female managers and i want to understand enough of their situation to interact well.  I learn some things but yeah, mostly fluff to me. 

To make a solid statement as an answer to the question i posed in my subject - they're only worth it if you can spare the time and you are willing to not have immediately implementable practical solutions. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Scrum Challenge - QA Nickname Generator

Sometimes we have scrum challenges that are more about fun than learning a specific lesson.  For my team, i often think that they feel that the scrum challenges are mostly about fun.  This is ok for a few reasons.  

Firstly, not all lessons you learn are consciously learned.  If i can build a situation that provides a learning experience, either by understanding their own actions and reactions or by observing the actions of their the peers then there will be lessons learned, whether the team realizes it or not.  most of our learning is experiential and not known until you start to apply the knowledge.  Or heck, most people may never consciously understand much of the knowledge that they've gained.  That's the fun part about experiential learning.  Your experiences guide who you become to the point where you don't question it and just be.  Now, to be a more complete, balanced happy individual i believe that you should be self-aware enough to understand these things but that's not a very easy target to reach. 

Secondly, any challenge that engages your brain or even just your involvement is good exercise for you on many levels.   Getting the old brain juices moving from a direction different from normal is powerful and useful tool to keep you brilliant.  

Thirdly, fun challenges without learning are still exceptionally good team building exercises, or can be.  Having interaction with healthy laughter and people working as a team builds the bond that help foster useful communication as well as the tolerance buffer for requests for help and against annoying habits. 

A couple of weeks ago i came up with the idea that QA should have it's very own nickname generator.  If you're not familiar with the concept it's been a pretty prevalent internet meme as long as there's been internet (or so it seems).  It's a set of rules, or an app that allows you to determine what your nickname would be, pursuant to any particular theme without having to do work on your own.  Just googling 'define nickname generator' brings back links to produce a nickname themed on; hobbits, smurfs, pirates, gangsta, real <sic> japanese name, chinese name, wu-tang name, stripper, jedi, and etc.  So with all those options, why not a QA nickname generator?  

As with most weird thoughts i have, i try to figure out how to roll it up into a scrum challenge.  Thereby alleviating my need to be creative that week and giving the team something fun and/or educational to work on.  Giving it some thought i decided that what the scrum challenge would be is the team itself would come up with how the nickname generator would actually work.  I went in with the potential seed idea of using a thesaurus and types of testing and we went into a free-form brainstorming session.  

Below is what we arrived at:

The QA Nickname Generator

The Rules
  1. Alpha position of the first letter of your last name = Y 
    1. ie a = 1, b = 2, c = 3
    2. If your Y is already represented in the team, Y = Y+N
    3. repeat 2 as necessary
  2. Number of letters in your first name = N
  3. Pick your favourite testing type (ie regression, functional, smoke...etc)
  4. Put the testing type into a thesaurus (thesaurus.com for example) and your core nickname is the Nth choice in the list of synonyms.
    1. If the list is shorter than N, wrap in counting through the list.
  5. Count 'Y' positions through the hero type list and that's your hero nickname.
  6. Your nickname is FirstName 'the core nickname hero nickname' LastName
    1. you can swap the core and hero if it makes more sense.
    2. you can modify the core and/or hero words slightly as long as they remain the same root, to make them sound more appropriate.

The Hero Type List

PositionHero Type
​1​   Kung Fu
​2​   Sword Master
​3  ​ Cyborg
​4​   Singer
​5   ​Guru
​6   ​Gunfighter
​7   ​Zombie Lord
​8   ​Sleeping Beauty
​9   ​Dwarf
​10   ​Dinosaur Tamer
​11   ​Were Lion
​12    ​Bear Puncher
​13    ​Communist

The Results

So my nickname came out to be  Mike 'the courageous sleeping beauty' Hrycyk  which is pretty awesome. 

some other examples; (with the people's names trimmed for their privacy)
'the drinking sword master'
'the soot bear puncher'
'the zombie lord verdict'
'the mechanization guru'
'the industrialization singer'
'the substantiation bear puncher'
'the constancy communist'
'the ​administration cyborg'
‘the Kung-Fu Operative’

We haven't really done a brainstorming session per se looking for an actual targeted end product before in scrum challenge.  we've done brainstorming but the end target isn't defined at all - ie One Uppers.  There was a bit of confusion and scrambling at the start but in the end, with a bit of prodding and guidance we came up with a useful and viable product.  Fast enough that we are able to use the tool to figure out 4 or 5 nicknames in the challenge.  which gave us some fun conclusions.  

We do these challenges in a meeting room every friday and there's a manager scrum and then a development team scrum in the room following our scrum.  Every friday members from both teams have taken to looking to the whiteboard to see what our scrum challenge has produced.  often there are things and when they aren't they turn to me in askance.  I've even had a manager or two take some of my scrum challenges and do them with their team, on occasion.  This challenge was the first time that i had random team members from groups go through the challenge on their own and send out the results.  So that was cool. 

What Went Right
  • good end product. 
  • team worked together to produce ideas. 
  • had time to actually produce some nicknames. 
  • the team enjoyed the challenge quite a bit. 

What Went Wrong
  • some of the team was left out of the collaborative nicknaming process although we followed up later with the entire list.  

Lessons Learned
Brainstorming isn't easy.  You need a path to really guide people along to have an end product that you can use.  i struggled working on this challenge to produce a brainstorming session that i thought would be useful.  in the end i had to provide a pretty healthy seat to the storm.  A large part of this, however, was the length of the challenge, 15 minutes is just very short. 

I want to see your nickname if you make one please - in the comments!

Signing off.... Mike 'the courageous sleeping beauty'

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Quality to the rest of the world

A few months ago one of the coordinators for VanQ - the Vancouver QA Users Group approached me and asked if i was interested in giving a talk at one of their monthly meetups.  I don't do a lot of public speaking but i am not stranger to it but one of the reasons that i started this blog was that i want to give back some of the experience and wisdom that i've gained in my 16 years in this business. 

I wracked my brain for a few days trying to think up topics that might be a little interesting to a crowd of mostly QA's and the one that I kept coming back to time after time was the difference between Quality Assurance the term as we use it in software QA and the term Quality Assurance as the rest of the world uses it.  After all, it was coming to the job i currently have that really opened my eyes to the breadth that quality has in the world. 

Before offering it up to the coordinator as my topic, i floated it it to my team to see if they'd be interested in such a topic.  I didn't get a lot of feedback but the feedback i did receive was, centered around the fact that the topic got regular observance in VanQ discussions.  i was saddened by this response a little so i found another topic that i could talk about that was a little more standardized in the software QA realm and floated them both past the coordinator as options.  He indicated he was excited by both of them and would love if i'd present both but would like the one Quality in the wider world one first as he thought it would be well received by the VanQ crowd. 

It was an interesting process for me, putting together the slide deck for this presentation.  In the past i have, of course, done numerous professional presentations within my workplace.  But for those you almost always have the target audience well sorted while you're producing the materials.  They're a known commodity because you know the people.  The other types of presentations I've done have been roasts of colleagues for going away parties, birthdays, retirements etc.  For those i've also known the people i was talking to and could rely on a series of prop "gifts" and materials that i knew would hold some sort of relevance to the audience.  For this it was a lot more like going in cold.  i didn't know what they would find funny or interesting. 

The first preparatory step i had available to me is going to see a couple of VanQ presentations from other presenters.  Luckily it was still a couple of months out and there were two presentations i could go to.  That was excellent for me because the presenters were people just like me.  Not super polished professional presenters but people with some experience who wanted to share it with others. 

I showed up at my talk fairly nervous but not afraid, something they tried to make worse by telling me that they were going to record my talk, the first one they'd ever done.

All things considered it went pretty well.  People laughed when i wanted them to laugh and didn't when i didn't want them to.  The message was proven to be on point when a person from a similar field but much closer tied to the material validated the things i was saying during questions.  There were some things that i learned;what to do with my hands, to repeat questions from the audience when only i'm mic'd, to rehearse a little better and not to rely on being able to see the laptop screen for the presentation unless i know i'm going to be able to. 

The coordinator told me that i was very good for the crowd, making the generally dry presentations a lot more amusing and accessible.  He asked if i'd come back and i said yes.  Who said growth, personal and professional isn't good for you?

Here's the recording...